Soundings

The Politics of Squeegees
Spring 1994

New York City has an odd new political interest group: “squeegee men.” Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s inauguration was attended by protesters on behalf of the squeegee men—who approach motorists, wash their windows, and ask for money, often aggressively. A few weeks later, a group calling itself the Squeegee Coalition threatened to disrupt a speech by Giuliani. Gadfly attorneys William Kunstler and Ron Kuby have offered free legal representation to squeegee-wielders arrested or cited as part of a police crackdown.

During the 1993 mayoral campaign, Giuliani had pointed to the squeegee men as an example of the sort of quality-of-life problem to which New York officials should pay more attention. His opponent, incumbent David Dinkins, scoffed: “Killers and rapists are the city’s real public enemies, not squeegee pests.” Giuliani, the argument goes, was scapegoating a powerless group in the name of solving a trivial problem.

But it’s worth noting that it was Dinkins’s police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, who launched the crackdown on squeegee men in October 1993. Kelly also commissioned Northeastern University criminologist (and City Journal contributor) George Kelling to study the phenomenon. Kelling’s report, released in February 1994, argued that public fear of the squeegee men was justified. Out of 41 squeegee men arrested or cited during the crackdown, 19, or nearly half, had previous arrests for drug offenses, and 21, or just over half, had been arrested for robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, or carrying a gun. Moreover, while some window washers are good-natured and unassuming, others “appear to behave in ways that are calculated to menace drivers,” Kelling wrote. When drivers do not cooperate, some squeegee men drape themselves over the front of the car to prevent it from moving or spit on the windows. One squeegee man, interviewed by the Boston Globe, had this rationalization for his tactics: “Everybody is an aggressor. If IBM takes over AT&T, [are] they going to be nice about it?”

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